If the Florence Freedom secure a Frontier League playoff berth later this week, they can point to their performances against the Wild Things as the reason why they’ll be in the postseason for the second time in team history.
Florence used a three-run homer by Kyle Bluestein, the No. 9 hitter in the lineup, and starter Casey Henn pitched into the eighth inning, as the Freedom inched closer to the playoffs Sunday with a 7-5 victory over the Wild Things at Consol Energy Park.
Florence swept the three-game series and went 9-3 on the season against Washington. The Freedom (52-41) entered Sunday holding the final wild-card playoff berth, leading Gateway by one game, River City by 1½ games and Southern Illinois by two games. Gateway and Southern Illinois each were 3-3 against Washington. River City was 4-2.
The regular season ends Thursday.
“We’ve had some success against Washington this year, but the bottom line is we know we have to win games. It doesn’t matter who they’re against or how ugly they are, we just have to win,” Florence manager Fran Riordan said. “In this one, they were able to get the tying run on second base in the ninth, but our closer got the job done.”
Washington trailed 5-0 in the second inning, and 7-2 in the eighth, but managed to provide some tense moments for the Freedom in the ninth by scoring two runs and loading the bases. Jorge Marban, Florence’s closer, ended the game by striking out pinch-hitter Nick Boggan with the bases loaded. It was Marban’s 26th save.
“We dug ourselves a hole and couldn’t get out of it,” said Washington manager Bart Zeller, who was ejected in the eighth inning.
It was similar to Saturday night’s game when Florence built a 6-0 lead after two innings and held on for a 6-3 victory.
“Saturday night, our owner (Stu Williams) came into the locker room after the game and thanked the team for its effort this season. He is proud that they never quit,” Zeller said. “This game was an example of that. These guys never seem to pack it in. They play the game the way you’re supposed to – hard and until the last out.”
In this game, Washington could have used a few more outs. That’s because Florence scored five runs in the second inning against Washington starter Dayne Quist (8-4), which forced the Wild Things to play catch-up all night. Quist uncharacteristically walked two of the first three batters in the second, and Pablo Bermudez and Aijay Davis followed with run-scoring singles.
The right-handed hitting Bluestein, who is batting only .164, then hit his three-run homer to right field that made the score 5-0.
“Getting a three-run homer from the No. 9 hitter, though he has done it before, is production that you don’t expect,” Riordan said. “That hit was big. It put the momentum on our side early in the game.”
Washington pulled to within 5-2 in the fifth when Stewart Ijames hit a solo homer, his 15th home run of the season. It was the Wild Things’ first hit of the game off Henn (5-0), a rookie from Wright State University.
The Wild Things added four more hits in the inning but scored only one more run, on a single by catcher Mario Mercedes (3-for-4). Florence left fielder Davis Harris made a big play in the inning by throwing out Shain Stoner at home plate. Stoner was trying to score from second base on a single by Scott Kalamar.
After Quist retired 10 consecutive hitters, doubles by Byron Wiley and Jim Jacquot produced a Florence run in the sixth, and Harris led off the eighth with his 14th homer to give the Freedom a 7-2 lead.
That’s when things started getting uncomfortable for each team.
Mercedes led off the bottom of the eighth with his first home run in more than a year. Three batters later, Washington’s C.J. Beatty was ejected by home plate umpire Mike Shields after a called third strike for the inning’s second out.
During the inning break, Zeller also was ejected. Before leaving, he had an animated nose-to-nose argument with Shields, then stood behind home plate and mocked a player catching pitches outside of the strike zone.
With the crowd of 1,648 whipped in a frenzy, Washington rallied in the ninth. Singles by Ijames, Jovan Rosa, Stoner and Mercedes off Florence reliever Jason Conley made the score 7-4 with one out.
Marban replaced Conley and struck out Kalamar for the second out. A.J. Nunziato drew a bases-loaded walk to make it 7-5, but Marban got his second strikeout, giving Florence its biggest win of the season.
“Our team has the feeling that if it does the fundamental things correctly and makes some big pitches, then they’ll scratch and claw to the end and win,” Riordan said. “They’ve identified with that mentality.”
Washington outhit Florence 11-9. … The Wild Things (41-52) must sweep its season-ending three-game series against the Frontier League Greys to match its 44-52 record of last season.